Proteas: Engine still purring?

2013-10-11 12:04
Graeme Smith (Gallo)

Cape Town – One way to look at South Africa’s Test mini-series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, starting in Abu Dhabi on Monday, might be to say the Proteas should cruise to a routine triumph.

After all, if the ICC sixth-ranked Pakistan could be held to a famous – at least for the minnow host nation – 1-1 draw in Zimbabwe recently, the top-rated South African mean machine really ought to carry too much firepower in the two-Test programme.

But shrewd observers of the five-day format are also only too aware of how conditions, and just as often results, can tilt quite violently the other way when teams get back to the sanctuary of home environments.

For the unfortunate Pakistanis, victims of near-eternal instability in their own country, the dry and unforgivingly hot UAE serves as their current “home”, but they are also finding it more and more of a fruitful place to do business.

Whilst they can draw no comfort from a 0-3 walloping in a fuller series against the Proteas on our very different turf just last summer, they will expect to be altogether more competitive over the next couple of weeks.

Graeme Smith and company know it, too.

In four Test series played exclusively thus far in the neutral Emirates, Pakistan have not yet been beaten – even if that admittedly excludes a reverse to then-brilliant Australians in 2002/03 when that series was split, for whatever reason, between the UAE and Sri Lanka.

The pick of that quartet was undoubtedly the 3-0 sweep of relative superpower England in 2011/12, when the spin alliance of Saeed Ajmal (24 wickets at 14.70) and Abdur Rehman (19 at 16.73) truly wreaked havoc on significant turners.

Needless to say, both men are ominously in the mix to tackle the South Africans and there has been inevitable talk of Pakistan doing everything possible to prepare more significant “crumblers” than could be managed in the high-scoring 0-0 previous Emirates outcome between these foes in 2010/11.

In the lead-up, attention has also fallen once again on the Proteas’ one perceived area of vulnerability: their own ability or otherwise to fight fire with genuine fire on the slow-bowling front.

If the Abu Dhabi strip does look a real turning beast – though as Paul “Gogga” Adams reminded Sport24 recently, such pitches can also turn abrasive and aid the wiliest of pacemen – South Africa may be daring and field both Robin Petersen and Imran Tahir, with JP Duminy still as a handy third option.

A likelier scenario is the Proteas at least starting the series with a “status quo” type of line-up, featuring one of the spin specialists plus Duminy’s off-breaks, and a speed arsenal comprising the customary threesome of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel with veteran Jacques Kallis maybe bending his back for not more than eight overs a day if necessary.

There is always the danger of the South African engine starting a bit cold, considering their Test inactivity since as far back as late February; not very much can usually be read into those soulless, 13-a-side type of warm-up matches that are the sad vogue these days as extended-form cricket gets pushed ever more toward the margins.

But my fancy is still that if the Proteas can complete a 20-wicket process in just one of the two Tests against the fickle Pakistan batting line-up – something that could not be done last time in the UAE – they should be well placed to steal the honours.

South Africa’s own batting is a juggernaut, tried-and-trusted enough unit not to be bowled out twice themselves by these opponents in a Test, even if the Pakistani spinners do offer some periods of real discomfort to them.

A tempering thought is that known dominator Hashim Amla may miss a Test given his wife’s late-stages-of-pregnancy status, whilst Smith’s fitness remains a matter of some intrigue – whatever the official talk on the matter, I did find it seriously strange that after failing in the first innings of the warm-up game, he did not go out for a second crack at eliminating cobwebs and was instead “rested” for Monday’s start of combat-proper.

Already a vast 19 ratings points clear of second-placed England on the rankings chart, even a 1-0 outcome the Proteas’ way would only widen the gap pleasingly further.

Another stalemate under the desert sun would not be the end of the world, either ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    proteas  |  graeme smith  |  cricket

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